‘I’m 22, I lost 22’: Gaza bombing survivor paints to grieve loss

Gaza City – “I am 22, I lost 22 people”. Zainab al-Qolaq’s words opened her first art exhibition in Gaza, with nine paintings that depict her tragic story.

Al-Qolaq lost 22 members of her family, including her mother, her only sister and two of her brothers, during the Israeli military offensive on Gaza last May.

On May 16, 2021, an Israeli air strike hit al-Qolaq’s home, turning it into rubble and leaving her clinging to life under debris for 12 hours before she was pulled out.

In the past year, al-Qolaq has devoted herself to processing her grief through her art, and held a two-day exhibition on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The art exhibition was organised by the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor and UN Women Palestine, which released a booklet that gathered al-Qolaq’s paintings and texts describing the psychological impact of the attacks on her.

In the paintings, al-Qolaq illustrated the events of the day her house was bombed, as well as the internal conflicts and struggles that she has experienced since.

“Each painting embodies a tragic moment that I lived because of the Israeli occupation,” al-Qolaq told Al Jazeera at the exhibition.

Al-Qolaq explained that the nature of her drawings was embodying the “death and war”, as she wants anyone who sees them to read her feelings and understand the painful moments she went through.

One of Zainab's paintings.
Al-Qolaq lost several members of her immediate family and 22 members of her extended family [Abed Abu Riash/Al Jazeera]

One particular painting, a drawing of her family based on a photo taken during her brother’s university graduation, is close to her heart.

In the painting, some of al-Qolaq’s family members are depicted as clothes without a body.

“The painting indicates that what remained is only their empty clothes, but the bodies went away. The colours of this painting were mixed with tears,” al-Qolaq said.

Another painting, she said, depicted her condition today as a corpse.

“I wanted to say here that removing me from under the rubble does not mean that the [internal] rubble has been removed and that I’m in a good condition,” al-Qolaq explained.

While the artist has used her paintings to deal with her trauma, it can still come back, at a moment’s notice.

During the exhibition she took short breaks, in a separate room, to “be alone”.

Al-Qolaq’s mentors at the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor told Al Jazeera that al-Qolaq still refuses to go back to her former home, and rejected the idea of holding the exhibition there.

Visitors take photos of Zainab's paintings.
Dozens of visitors attended al-Qolaq’s two-day art exhibition in Gaza [Abdelhakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera]

The bombing

After a short break, al-Qolaq recalled the night of the bombing.

“There was the sound of massive strikes, which shook the house. My mother told me that the walls of our home were shaking,” she said.

“Seconds later I found myself under the rubble, we were all under the rubble.”

Under the rubble, al-Qolaq waited, unaware that so many members of her family had been killed.

“They were long hours. I was only thinking about my family members. Who has lost consciousness, who was in need of help?” she said.

Despite the massive bombing, al-Qolaq ruled out the idea that “one of them was killed”. “I was pushing hard any idea in this context.”

On her arrival at a hospital she was informed that members of her family had been killed in the bombing. They were soon buried, with al-Qolaq unable to attend and bid them a final farewell.

Zainab, her father and her brother.
Al-Qolaq with the only survivors from her immediate family, her father Shokri and her brother Osama [Abdelhakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera]

Art conveys feelings

By her side as she recounted the terrible stories that have inspired her artwork was her father, Shokri.

The 50-year-old told Al Jazeera that he has had to hide his feelings and be strong in front of his children, but the reality was that he was feeling the loss, just as much as them.

He eventually worked to convince his daughter, who was already an artist before the air strike, to pick up her brushes again.

“After the bombing, Zainab, who is a creative artist and loved to draw, stopped completely. I tried hard to convince her to resume painting, and after several attempts I succeeded,” Shokri said.

“Painting is an opportunity for dealing with things mentally. Zainab’s paintings are filled with sad feelings and express the difficult experience she went through,” he added.

“In the past, Zainab’s drawings were full of life, love and colours, but now they are covered in darkness.”

Al-Qolaq told Al Jazeera she used the “language of art” as it is a universal language that people around the world could understand.

“I wanted to convey my voice and my feelings, and for them to understand the very difficult moments I went through,” she said.

“I know that my loss is too great to be compensated, but I believe that my mother and my brothers will not rest until their killers are brought to account.”

Zainab looks to one of her paintings.
Al-Qolaq still suffers from the trauma of the bombing and the loss of her family [Abdelhakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera]

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